Surprised to see Patrick Modiano receive the consecration of a Nobel Prize for Liberature? Quite so. He is so French—the quality of his language, his inability to create a world outside of Paris—and his background is so cosmopolitan, with a Jewish Italian father and a Flemish Catholic mother. Once again, gamblers and prognosticators got it wrong.
That said, this particularly retiring writer has received a poisonous gift from the Nobel committee. It’s not enough that he’ll be mobbed by reporters from the world over. He’ll have to make the sacrifice, if he succeeds in controlling himself, of making the ritual grateful speech at the official prize-giving ceremony in Stockholm – he who already has so much trouble explaining himself to an audience of more than three people.
The real low blow is in the official communiqué in which the Swedish academicians justify their choice. Two words to note: “memory,” of course, and “Occupation,” those black years to which his books return again and again. With them he has created his own cliché, and there’s no doubt they haunt him all the more because he didn’t live them, having been born just after the Liberation. By putting this word “Occupation” in their ruling on his work, the judges have diminished it, reducing it to his earlier work. His universe long since went beyond the period of 1940-1944, as shown by his last novel, Pour que tu ne perdes pas dans le quartier (So You Don’t Get Lost In the Neighborhood).
But enough. Let’s say this misunderstanding is the price of glory and all that. What’s most important once the trumpets of fame have gone silent is the quality of the literature. In this case it’s a compact oeuvre, one that’s remarkably homogeneous, in which there’s such coherence and unity that some might say when they read a Modiano they are reading the same book coming from the same pen that never stopped chiseling the same groove for 40 years, oblivious to fashion, to l’air du temps, to the pressures of the booksellers. “Novelist and not writer and even less a man of letters,” Georges Simenon said of a title he well deserved. “Novelist good for nothing else,” said Samuel Beckett, and that ought to be taken as a compliment.
In Modiano’s work, certainly, there’s repetitiveness, a rehashing in this obsession with one époque. But once you get into it, you realize that it merely permits Modiano to explore what is most dear to him: the ambiguity of situations, the confusion of feelings, the blurring of atmospheres, the gestures that disturb, the vaporization of spirits in this world, the sum of our uncertainties and our hesitations—life!—the rest being décor since the first draft, La Place de l’Étoile, was published in 1968. If he is indeed the product of the long night of Occupation, he has since come out of it, but without ever leaving France, and especially Paris, its streets, its cafés, its outdated phone books, his fantasized topography, his secret title to the place in his recherche du temps perdu, his search for a lost time.
The poetic prose of the 15th French Nobel laureate for literature is characterized by an art that is altogether musical, like a song in which there is always the same refrain but from a different point of view. We have seen darker undercurrents; his, not to be too glowing about it, is suffused with a grace that is nostalgic without being melancholy, which takes some doing. This is called “the Modiano magic,” since people have had trouble defining it or seeing how it’s done. Best just to give up trying to figure out the mechanism. Let’s just say, simply, that Modiano is a writer as Oscar Wilde would have defined him: someone who spends all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.
Let us rejoice that Swedish academicians, rather better inspired than they have been these last 15 years, have crowned this man. He’s already been translated in 30 countries, and from now on he’ll also be read (because one thing does not always follow the other, in the United States, for instance). Philip Roth and Haruki Marukami will wait. With the anointing of Patrick Modiano, hundreds of thousands of readers around the world are going to discover a certain vision of France, and that’s as much as we’d wish for them or upon them.
This article is adapted from the original French version published on the site “La République de Livres.”